Finding your niche

5 04 2020

 

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I used to worry that I’d become antisocial. After years of living in London when friends and neighbours would regularly came round for chat over coffee or a shared supper, I wondered why my social self seemed to have gone so quiet. My enjoyment of people was not any less, indeed I cherished my close friendships even more so when I returned home to Devon. Maybe it was simply a question of a slower pace of life. Maybe it was all the still and serene time I spent with horses. Then, I heard the author Susan Cain talking on Radio 4 about her book Quiet. 

This book confirmed something surprising: I was an introvert. Now for years I had worked in socially stimulating jobs that required me to think on my feet, present confidently at conferences, talk to people in positions of power and challenge injustice. I passionately loved my work as a news journalist, especially the connections and interactions I made with some extraordinary people, but I knew I also needed plenty of time after an intense interview or press gathering to find a quiet space to recover. I used to seek out dark, unfashionable pubs my cheerfully social colleagues would have avoided. This was my own version of after-work drinks, such a core feature of city professional life.

Thanks to the revelations in Quiet, I realise that my constitution means I need to decompress alone; it means I prefer one-to-one conversations about meaningful ideas than social stories or shared anecdotes. It means loud bars are exhausting. I thrive when the lighting is low, the music muted and the atmosphere is calm. Rather than moving from topic to topic, like a butterfly in search of social nectar, I prefer to properly explore a theme with someone equally drawn to diving in deep.

For a long time, I pretended to be an extrovert, and I didn’t even realise I was doing it. I just thought that being introvert was boring and a little bit lame. When I woke up to being introvert, life suddenly made more sense. I began to seek out quiet spaces in my life and to limit my networking. A sign when I have reached my limit of social contact is when I go to say something and my tongue feels pasted to the roof of my mouth. I used to believe I needed to try harder, to get unstuck by being a bit funnier, but now I recognise I can take myself home to a nightcap with a friendly book.

An unexpected delight of declaring as an introvert, has been the playful conversations I’ve had with family, friends, students and colleagues, who have naturally wondered where they fall on the extrovert-introvert spectrum. It’s not an easy thing to determine. Susan Cain first turns to Carol Jung’s enquiry Psychological Types, which suggests: ‘Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, extroverts to the external life of people and activities.’ But contemporary researchers point out that there are no neat categories. Saying you are introvert or extrovert is not like saying you have straight or curly hair.

“There are almost as many definitions of introvert and extrovert as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate. Some think that Jung’s ideas are outdated; others swear that he’s the only one who got it right.

“Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.”

Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (Penguin 2012)

Returning to Quiet to prepare for teaching a course with the horses, I was struck not only by its scholarly depth and serious research, but its compassion and gentle humour. Susan Cain shares her personal journey in her warm and engaging TED talk, which I recommend to anyone wondering why it seems they are enjoying this period of retreat from society more than they want to admit.

For an introvert, being ordered to stay indoors is rewarding rather than punishing. It offers time for quiet pursuits such as reading, writing and bread-making. Of course, extroverts enjoy such activities, too, but a typical extrovert will actively want to fill their time and will probably spend more time skyping, zooming, face-timing and news scrolling than a typical introvert. For  introverts the phrase ‘lock-down’, means time to find a ‘restorative niche.’

This idea of a niche to restore and nurture your true self is explored by Cain in her lovely book, and it is particularly pertinent now and not just for introverts. For extroverts, finding your restorative niche might mean volunteering by shopping for others, delivering prescriptions or joining a telephone befriending service so that their social side is allowed to sparkle a bit; for introverts, it might mean limiting your time on social media so that you are free to make sourdough from scratch or study philosophy. Introverts and extroverts may have opposite ways of relating socially, but they do not need to live in opposition. As well as confirming my introvert traits, Quiet reminded me to really love the extroverts in my life, to celebrate the joy, loyalty and energy they bring.

Now in this time of being thrown together with our propensities so perfectly and perhaps painfully exposed, it will be tempting to become territorial over our perceived needs. Some will want to argue and defend, some will fight back, some will prefer to ignore the opportunity to get to know ourselves more deeply than ever before. But what a pity if we emerged from this, no wiser, no saner, no richer. Seeing ourselves as we truly are is a precious gift, coincidentally something we often long for when we are too preoccupied by daily concerns to even get close to the questions we might ask. Could we get quiet enough to start?


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2 responses

5 04 2020
conversationswithnell

Thank you from one introvert to another. X

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13 04 2020
Theresa McRobbie

How interesting, I will definitely read Quiet. Thank you For sharing Belinda. Xxxx

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